A preliminary hearing for the Missouri Attorney General’s second petition to shut down Agape Boarding School and remove its students to safety was scheduled to take place Thursday, Oct. 13, in Cedar County Circuit Court. That hearing has been delayed.
According to court records, on Friday, Oct. 7, the court, the state’s attorneys, and Agape’s attorneys had a discussion on issues related to a motion for jury trial, the necessity of appointment of guardian ad litem, parents as necessary parties, application of discovery rules, and taking depositions of proposed witnesses prior to trial.
Another conference call was scheduled at 9 a.m. Tuesday morning, Oct. 11, for issues to be more fully addressed. This morning, Cedar County Judge Thomas Pyle filed an order and memorandum of law, which can be viewed in full via the attachments link in this article.
Judge Pyle was assigned to the case after the AG office requested a new judge in late September. Cedar County Circuit Court Judge David Munton had initially been assigned. Two weeks ago, Judge Pyle set the date of this week’s preliminary hearing and ordered that Department of Social Services Children’s Division workers have 24-hour access to Agape’s campus to observe the students there. He also denied Agape attorney John Schultz’ motion to dismiss. Schultz is demanding a jury trial.
On Saturday morning, Rep. Sarah Unsicker (D-Shrewsbury) noted the significance of the court appointing a GAL.
"Everything I’ve seen before this has related to the rights of boarding schools to exist as a business,” Unsicker told the CCR. “The children at Agape have rights as well, and if those aren’t recognized in court, their rights are trampled.”
Unsicker said Friday’s docket entry is the first evidence she’s seen of “anyone’s attempt to make sure the Agape children’s rights are protected.”
“I hope these children are well-represented,” Unsicker said.
RECENT CASE NEWS
The front entrance at Agape Boarding School has continued to remain open during regular business hours, but the Missouri Attorney General, the Missouri Speaker of the House and former students have called for the school to be shut down entirely.
On Monday, Sept. 26, the AG Office filed a second petition in Cedar County Circuit Court requesting that the school be shut down and its students removed to safety.
The petition alleges the following reasons for why children should be removed from the school: current Agape students have alleged abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; former Agape students have corroborated reports of abuse and neglect by current Agape staff members; Missouri Department of Social Services Children’s Division has found multiple current Agape staff members abused or neglected students; and multiple Agape employees have not completed mandatory criminal background checks.
Additionally, the petition said that Agape’s director Bryan Clemenson told a DSS worker that the ranch was moving away from operating as a boarding school facility and planned to now instead operate at a smaller capacity with group homes. Clemensen expanded on that news with the CCR and said the move was a result of the school’s dire financial situation. Clemensen said he can’t get new students to enroll due to national publicity about the school’s abuse allegations.
However, the AG Office originally called Agape’s shift to group homes a “corporate shell game” in their amended petition and alleged it was a way for Agape to “escape accountability or continue to present an immediate health and safety concern to children … while employing the same people and methods that originally led the State to bring this action to protect children.”
In late September, Missouri House Speaker Rob Vescovo’s widely publicized request for federal intervention to shut down Agape raised allegations of local corruption in Cedar County.
Those allegations began with Cedar County Prosecuting Attorney Ty Gaither’s office, which prompted Gaither to provide written statements and seperate interviews with the CCR and the Kansas City Star’s investigative reporting team to, in his personal view, refute those allegations of corruption.
“There is more than a little irony in being accused of inaction by the Speaker of the House even as we have worked diligently to pursue justice for the victims, and have not publicly distanced ourselves from the prosecution of this case,” Gaither said last week in the written portion of his interview.
Gaither said he believed the restraints Agape used on students didn’t violate Missouri law and said he was “restricted as a prosecuting attorney to follow the law” when deciding to file only 13 low-level felonies against five Agape staffers. In contrast, the AG office recommended that Gaither file 65 criminal counts, including felony child abuse, against Agape staffers.
Gaither also said he felt Agape should have been handled by “a more experienced prosecutor.”
MORE ON THE PROSECUTION
The CCR requested an interview last week with Attorney General Eric Schmitt to discuss his view of the prosecution of boarding school abuse cases in Cedar County. Attorney General Press Secretary Chris Nuelle said an interview couldn’t be arranged, but Nuelle agreed to answering written questions via email.
Nuelle said the AG office has exhausted every legal avenue possible to try to see 65 felony charges get filed against 22 Agape co-defendants “for crimes of abuse that were related to the draconian restraints used on the students at Agape.”
“When we were repeatedly stymied from seeking justice, we even asked the Court to allow our Office to empanel a grand jury to file those charges,” Nuelle said.
In Schmitt’s 2021 letter to Governor Parson requesting he be recused from the case, Schmitt said his office requested the Cedar County Circuit Court convene a special grand jury to hear evidence of abuse of 36 children, but the request was denied.
In Gaither’s response to the AG Office’s request for a grand jury trial in 2021, he cited several cases and laws on the elected county prosecuting attorney’s sole discretion to file, dismiss, or prosecute a criminal case in the county.
“The Cedar County Prosecutor has not been disqualified in this case,” Gaither said in his legal response to the AG’s request for a grand jury and to sign indictments. “Under 27.30 RSMo. the Attorney General is directed to assist the prosecutor, not assume his power. The elected Cedar County Prosecutor does not request the court empanel a grand jury in this matter, and asks the Court to overrule the motion made by the Attorney General for such a panel.”
Nuelle said that in Missouri, the Attorney General’s Office lacks original criminal jurisdiction, and must be asked to come in to aid in a prosecution by the appropriate county prosecutor, and that invitation must be approved by the Governor.
“We’re unable to file criminal charges in most cases without that invitation,” Nuelle said. “Most of the time, when that invitation is extended and approved by the Governor, the county prosecutor turns over charging decisions to the Attorney General’s Office and we are able to file what we see fit. That’s what happened in the Circle of Hope case, and we were able to file 102 felony charges against the Householders.”
But in the Agape case, Gaither retained final charging decisions, Nuelle said.
“When that happens, there’s nothing legally that the Attorney General’s Office can do to override a prosecutor,” Nuelle said.
Last week, Gaither told the CCR he’s still requesting and expecting assistance from the AG Office.
“It’s my understanding that all he’s asked our Office for is aid in locating and transporting witnesses,” Nuelle said of Gaither’s request for assistance. “It’s our understanding that some of the witnesses that Ty Gaither needs for his case were located at Agape Boarding School. All he needed to do was walk down the street.”
Ultimately, Nuelle said the AG Office is confident that the court will agree on their position to close down Agape.
Others, such as activists and former Agape Boarding School students, are watching the timeline of events as it unfolds and lengthens.
“Agape Boarding School has been open for just over 9,500 days,” said Robert Bucklin, a former Agape student, on Twitter. “Over 6,000 students have attended. Just in the last year alone, we have heard from hundreds of victims already. The school is still open this Monday morning praying on innocent children.”